Seasonal Affective Disorder sad weather

Seasonal Affective Disorder: Symptoms, Causes, and Risk Factors


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Written by Sandy Glover

Master in Mental Health Counselling

13 Sep, 2022

It is common to see people's moods shift during the change of seasons. Some folks might look forward to the longer days and warmer weather in the spring and summer, and others might prefer the colder months and sit by a toasty fire. But what happens if the seasonal change affects your thoughts and feelings and disrupts your daily functioning? Or how about if you start to observe that your moods and behaviour are changing? If so, you may be suffering from a form of depression called seasonal affective disorder.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression related to seasonal changes that begin and end around the same time every year, impacting one's circadian rhythm. More frequently, the symptoms start in the fall and persist throughout winter, depleting your energy and affecting your moods, called the winter blues. They tend to resolve during the spring and summer months.  In contrast, SAD can occur in the spring or early summer and conclude during the fall or winter months, but it happens less often.

Signs and Symptoms of SAD

To be diagnosed with SAD, potentially by a qualified psychologist, depression must occur with a change of season, either during fall/winter months or spring/summer months. Symptoms typically start mildly and progress during the months, lasting at least four or five months out of the year. In addition, symptoms must appear for at least two consecutive years. Still, not every individual with SAD experiences symptoms every year. Finally, symptoms of depression must be more frequent during seasonal changes than at any other time in one's life.

Symptoms of major depression may include:

  • Loss of pleasure in once enjoyed activities

  • Low energy or fatigue

  • Social withdrawal

  • Sleep disturbances

  • Lack of focus or concentration

  • Increased need for sleep

  • Trouble focusing

  • Hopelessness, helplessness, or worthlessness

  • Shame or guilt

  • Appetite change or weight gain

  • Physical complaints, such as headaches or stomaches

Causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder

Although the specific cause of SAD remains unknown, it has been linked to shorter days and less sunlight, causing a chemical shift in the brain. Meanwhile, due to frigid outdoor temperatures and wet weather, you are losing out on activity or fresh air to being more homebound. All these things combined affect a person's hormones, thus possibly causing the winter blues.

Causes may include:

  • Serotonin levels: When the days become shorter and the nights grow longer, the reduction of the sun can cause depression. In addition, during this time, the serotonin levels in the brain (neurotransmitter) decrease, affecting one's moods.

  • Circadian rhythm: With the reduction of sunlight during the fall and winter months, one is more prone to the winter blues, as it disturbs the body's biological clock (circadian rhythm).

  • Melatonin levels: Everyone produces melatonin, a hormone your brain produces in response to darkness. However, a seasonal change of months offsets the melatonin levels balance, negatively impacting one's moods and sleep patterns.

Risk Factors of SAD

Although several risk factors are associated with SAD, women are more affected by SAD than men, and it occurs more frequently in younger than older adults.

Some risk factors of SAD may include:

  • Family history: individuals with a family history of SAD have an increased risk of it themselves

  • Lower vitamin D levels: When our vitamin D levels are higher, it increases our serotonin level, often called the happy chemical, as it plays a role in our moods and emotions. Therefore, when we have lower vitamin D levels, it puts us at risk for depression.

  • Mental health issues: Those with existing mental health issues, such as depression or bipolar disorder, are more at risk for the winter blues. Therefore, if you are already depressed, SAD can worsen your symptoms.

  • Geographics: People who live far north or south of the equator are more prone to SAD due to decreased sunlight, shorter days in the winter months, and longer days during the summer months. Even those in rural communities can be affected.

Treatment for SAD

For those suffering from SAD, treatment is similar to how doctors treat depression, possibly including therapy or medication. Other benefits may consist of yoga, meditation, or exercise.

Regulating sleep for SAD is also one of the most significant factors in treatment because, without a healthy regimen, it will ultimately throw your body off balance.

Light therapy has been another method to treat SAD. However, please consult your doctor first, as some individuals with mood disorders may have adverse reactions.

Prevention for SAD

Although we can't prevent the winter blues from happening, we can learn ways to manage symptoms from worsening. Therefore, prepare yourself, pay attention to the time of year, and be aware of slight mood changes. The sooner you notice signs of SAD, the more apt you are to prevent any additional symptoms.

Even better, seek counselling before the seasonal change and save yourself from experiencing any symptoms. Talked has hundreds of qualified therapists who can help you with SAD.

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Sandy Glover

Master in Mental Health Counselling

Sandy has a master's degree in mental health counselling. Initially, she worked as a therapist but shifted her focus to the peer field and is now presenting at inpatient facilities.

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